Mike, a white man in his 50s, was in a bad spot: He was stuck idling in traffic on New York City’s Riverside Drive, running late for a meeting, and he needed to get to the Upper East Side pronto. Hopping on the shoulder to bypass the other cars wasn’t the right thing to do, he told VICE, but he’d seen other people get away with it before.
Mike, whose name has been changed to protect his privacy, said he knew it was risky—especially because the borrowed car he was driving didn’t have a license plate, let alone a registration under his name. He decided to roll the dice anyway. Right away, bad news: a traffic checkpoint, and cops pulling people over.
“That was probably the tightest spot I could've been in,” Mike said. “Because [the offense] could've been ‘driving without a plate,’ ‘driving with no registration…’" By driving on the shoulder, too, Mike was driving illegally in at least three different ways.
Despite that, he felt confident as the cop approached his car and told him to roll down his window. Instead of pulling out his driver’s license, Mike simply introduced himself and produced something better. “I just basically happened to have one of their PBA cards on me,” he said, referring to the small, plastic "courtesy" cards issued by the Police Benevolent Association, which usually have an officer’s name, phone number, and signature on the back.
The cards are designed to be presented in a low-stakes police encounter, like a traffic stop, as a laminated wink-and-nudge between officers that says, “Hey, would you mind going a little easy on this one?” When a cop is handed a PBA card, they can call the number on it to verify the relationship between the cardholder and the issuer, then decide whether it means they should give the cardholder a break.
According to Mike, the officer looked at the card, then let him go without asking for ID or the car’s registration. "By knowing somebody and having that connection, it worked,” Mike said.
The somebody Mike knew was a U.S. Route 1 patrolman, a colleague of the cops who’d pulled him over. Though he didn’t have a license plate or registration, he did have proof of that “connection,” and it was all he needed to be on his way without any trouble. As he did on that day in 1993, Mike has continued to carry, use, and benefit from PBA cards for almost three decades.
Though Mike’s story may seem like it comes from a less-scrutinized, outdated era of law enforcement, PBA cards are still used and accepted in the present, without much oversight. They serve as a physical example of how cops are able to exercise the law largely as they feel, personally, is right.
With a few exceptions, PBA cards aren’t a normal part of life for most people in the U.S. Though they do confer some privilege and exclusivity, the cards aren't exactly a secret. The Police Benevolent Association, New York City’s largest police union, issues these courtesy cards—nicknamed "get out of jail free cards"—to its members on a yearly basis. Members can pass the cards out to whomever they choose to provide them with a little extra protection.
Mike works in an industry that regularly puts him into contact with police officers, which gives him the opportunity to form personal, trusting relationships with them. As such, he said, he frequently receives PBA cards as a thank-you for extending cops small business favors and deals; currently, he estimates that he has somewhere between 10 and 12 unexpired courtesy cards in his possession. They're ideal for slipping into a wallet alongside other forms of identification. (Driver’s license? Check. Work ID? Check. “I’m friends with a cop” card? Check.)
Other New York City police unions, like the Detectives’ Endowment Association and the Sergeants Benevolent Association, do the same with their own courtesy cards; elsewhere, police unions in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Boston have a history of issuing courtesy cards of their own. (The Detectives’ Endowment Association and Sergeants Benevolent Association did not respond to requests for comment. The NYC PBA declined to comment for this story.)
According to John Driscoll, an assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, PBA cards aren’t quite carte blanche to flout the law. Driscoll, a former NYPD officer himself, told VICE that, in his experience, the cards are most likely to work in one’s favor during traffic stops for minor infractions, like speeding or a busted tail light—and not in more serious cases, like drunk driving.
When a PBA card is presented, it's up to the officer how they want to factor it into a stop. “Some officers, I think they'd summons their own mother,” Driscoll said. “The card doesn't mean anything to them. Other people [are less that way]; we have wide discretion when it comes to issuing summonses, so officers exercise that all the time,” he said, in order to let PBA cardholders off the hook for minor infractions if they so choose.
It may seem inconsequential when that choice means a police officer’s 19-year-old nephew walks away with a warning for running a stop sign in his suburban neighborhood. But because cops can also use discretion to over-apply the law violently to vulnerable populations, PBA cards and the privileges they confer are darkly emblematic of how certain people are favored in situations in which others are endangered or hurt by police.
The existence of these cards is a concrete example of a larger, often more insidious problem in American policing: Discretionary decision-making allows police to pick and choose who the law really applies to—and who gets a pass.
“Usually when we think about discretion, we think about what cops can do. But on the street, it's also who they won't harass, who they won't arrest, who they choose to let off.”
There are countless cases, many well-documented, of police brutality that have begun with a cop pulling a Black or nonwhite driver over for the type of very routine traffic stop that PBA cards are designed to smooth over. The “broken taillight” infraction has become a trope when it comes to police violence, specifically against Black people: In 2016, a Minneapolis police officer killed Philando Castile after pulling him over for a broken taillight; Castile was reportedly pulled over for similar infractions on a regular basis. (The officer in question was later acquitted.)
Black Americans have filed lawsuits against police officers in Aurora, Colorado, and Shreveport, Louisiana, alleging discriminatory and violent treatment during broken taillight stops, fortunately without deadly consequences.
In 2015, Sandra Bland was pulled over in Prairie View, Texas, for failing to signal while changing lanes; after a state trooper threatened her with a stun gun, Bland was taken into custody, where she was found dead three days later. There are many other accounts of police choosing violence against the people they pull over for minor traffic infractions, particularly if they aren't white.
To illustrate how discretion permeates issues of policing large and small, David Correia, an associate professor at the University of New Mexico and co-author of Police: A Field Guide, also pointed to over-policing in the “crime-infested” neighborhoods overwhelmingly populated by Black and brown people living at or below the poverty line; and the proven inability of so-called “chokehold bans” to curb the police use of chokeholds.
While injustices like these have gradually begun to receive the attention they need, the way that cops apply discretion in the other direction—in the form of favoritism toward people who are friendly to police—is a matter that they and their PBA-card-holding associates work to keep quiet, especially as it contrasts starkly with the gross mistreatment that people of color receive.
“Usually when we think about discretion, we think about what cops can do, what law permits them to do, what law constrains them from doing,” Correia said. “But on the street, it's also who they won't harass, who they won't arrest, who they choose to let off.”
In separate interviews with VICE, Correia and Tyler Wall, the other co-author of Police: A Field Guide, both emphasized the fact that these cards typify the concept of police discretion. “It does show a certain level of built-in, ingrained logic of the police,” Wall said: “There are people who should be able to perform their love for the cop in order to get out of a ticket.”
In practice, Correia and Wall said those who are able to “get off easy” from an encounter with the police typically look and act a lot like Mike, an affable white person who respects police authority and is careful to address them with friendly deference—to act the part of the sheepish, apologetic innocent who understands that the cop is “just doing their job.” (And, given the publicly available data on the demographics of the NYPD and New Jersey state police, the majority of police issuing cards are likely white officers.)
“The best way to use a PBA card is to not have to use it,” Jack, a white man in his 30s, told VICE. Like Mike, Jack works in an industry that brings him in frequent, close contact with police officers, who occasionally give him PBA cards for a job well done. But Jack also counts cops among his friends and family, and he said those relationships have instilled him with an extra sense of responsibility as a PBA card carrier.
Jack last used a PBA card in 2019, when he was pulled over on the New Jersey Turnpike in the early hours of the morning. “I was speeding,” Jack said. “I was doing close to 90 miles an hour. I was probably a good 15 to 20 miles over the speed limit.”
When Jack was pulled over—on his way to work, with his father, a co-worker, in the passenger seat—he felt a thrill of nervousness as the cop approached his window. Jack said he’s only used a PBA card three times total, and has never felt truly comfortable doing so, because he feels cautious, almost reverent, about the statement he’s making when he displays one. “Whenever I hand that card over to the police officer, I’m showing the type of person I am, and it’s reflecting off whoever gave me that card,” he said.
The exchange was brief and friendly. The traffic cop knew the cop whose PBA card Jack handed over, so after a quick phone call to confirm Jack obtained the card legitimately, the traffic cop let Jack go after issuing him a written warning. “He was still doing his job,” Jack said. “But he did let me off from getting a ticket. I have a feeling he gave me the warning because I had the card.”
Jack said he didn’t think it would be right to use a PBA card to extract himself from a more serious situation, like a bar fight or reckless driving—he wouldn’t want the cop who gave him a PBA card to be implicated in his bad behavior, and he also wouldn’t want to pressure a cop attempting to ticket him into bending the rules, just because he had a privileged relationship with another law enforcement officer. But, at the same time, Jack knows what he’s signaling when he shows a cop his PBA card.
“In my opinion, it’s basically something you hand over to the police officer to show that hey, I'm close with this cop. He gave it to me. He wouldn't have given it to me if he didn't trust me,” Jack said. “Here it is, you know, you do what you do with it.”
Officer discretion is at the core of modern policing—it vests cops with the power to choose if, when, how, to whom, and to what extent they will apply the law. The school resource officers who handcuff disabled children for acting out in class are free to do so because they’ve determined, using discretion, that it is necessary. The cop who returned a scared, naked teenager to Jeffrey Dahmer after the 14-year-old boy escaped the murderer’s house? Also exercising discretion.
Literature on discretion that’s favorable to the police effectively states that this decision-making power can’t be limited, because to do so would curb their ability to react in the moment and enforce the law. According to the preface of criminologist George L. Kelling’s 1999 report for the Department of Justice on discretion and police training (guided by the still-influential “broken windows” police theory he helped ideate):
“We now understand that telling officers only what they cannot do, which is so typical of police manuals and rules and regulations, has not improved the quality of policing. We know as well that the work world of police is too complex to tell officers exactly what they should do in every circumstance.”
Kelling goes on to advocate for training that teaches cops about how to think, rather than how to act, in the field—how to identify disorder and criminal potential, without placing firm limits on how to act once a supposed threat is identified. This mindset has unsurprisingly been linked to racial profiling and the criminalization of unhoused populations, something Kelling himself expressed concerns about.
Though Kelling’s work was published more than two decades ago, the concepts he helped popularize are still widely considered to be influential in modern policing. A 2013 report from the Brennan Center for Justice drew a direct line between “broken windows” policing and NYPD’s “stop and frisk” campaign, which ended in 2014 with the mayoral election of Bill de Blasio. (In 2016, Kelling himself said that he rebuked the way “broken windows” and the associated mindset around police discretion enabled cops to enforce laws in a discriminatory fashion.)
“Any officer who really wants to do order maintenance has to be able to answer satisfactorily the question, ‘Why do you decide to arrest one person who’s urinating in public and not arrest [another]?’” Kelling told Frontline. “And if you can’t answer that question, if you just say ‘Well, it’s common sense,’ you get very, very worried.”
Meanwhile, de Blasio has made half-hearted attempts at guiding the NYPD towards a community policing model over the last four years, but folded to police pressure in August by walking back support for a chokehold ban that criminalizes police “sitting, kneeling, or standing” on a person’s back or chest “in a manner that compresses the diaphragm” during an arrest. De Blasio announced his support for an amendment to the June chokehold ban in response to an NYC PBA lawsuit (filed August 6, along with 18 other unions, including the Sergeants Benevolent Association). The PBA then criticized the amendment, saying nothing less than a total repeal would be acceptable.
In both friendly and potentially fatal situations, police unions are firm that their ability to "do [their] jobs safely and effectively," as PBA president Patrick Lynch argued against the chokehold ban, rests solely on their own judgement, with as few limitations as possible.
Cops have serious social incentives to respect PBA cards—the way they handle being presented with one reflects the respect they have for a fellow officer. This dynamic is demonstrated with surprising accuracy, Driscoll said, in a storyline of The Sopranos.
In the 2001 episode “Another Toothpick,” Tony Soprano brandishes a New Jersey State PBA card when a Black police officer pulls him over for speeding. “I think I had dinner with your boss last week,” Soprano says slyly as he flashes the card (which bears the name of real-life former PBA president Michael J. Madonna).
After a tense exchange, the officer tickets Soprano anyway. A few scenes later, Soprano runs into the cop working at a garden supply store: Once word of his refusal to let Soprano off the hook got back to his superiors, the cop’s hours were cut and he was forced to get a second job to recoup the lost income.
“I love The Sopranos,” Driscoll said. “I laughed at that one!” But he said the potential disrespect communicated by ignoring a fellow cop’s PBA card was no joke.
When police officers are presented with a PBA card, they need to make a calculated decision about how seriously to take it. “Imagine you're a police officer, you're out there doing your job every single time, and you give your wife, or your brother, or your kid the card. You say, ‘Just show this to a police officer, and he can always call me and I can talk to him.’” Driscoll said. “And then the officer comes home and his [family member] says, ‘The police officer said, I don't give a shit about that! and gave me a summons.’
You'd be like, 'Damn! I'm in the same work as you, and you couldn't even extend me a courtesy?’”
According to Mike, even legitimate PBA cardholders like himself aren’t immune to scorn when they use them. “I've definitely given the card over and seen an eye-roll or two,” he said. “They were ready and willing to give the ticket, and then, when they saw the card, they didn't want to deal with either mailing the card back to the person [if they choose to confiscate it] or getting a phone call from another cop… I think that's kind of a no-no in their world.”
In the seven to 10 times Mike estimates he's presented cops with PBA cards, one instance from earlier this year sticks out in his mind. He said he turned out of a Starbucks parking lot in New Jersey and found himself going the wrong direction on a one-way street. Within seconds, a cop across the street sprang into action, running up to Mike’s car and ordering him to pull over.
Mike picked up on the cop’s aggressive demeanor immediately. “This guy had a really short haircut,” Mike said. “He had that mean look that you know right away sucks. Maybe he was just having an off day that day. But I don't think so—I think he was just not a nice guy.”
Worried, Mike handed over all three PBA cards he had on him in an effort to skirt the ticket. “He took all of them,” Mike said, something he'd never experienced before. “He basically said, ‘If I pull you over again, I'm gonna give you a ticket.’ So, some of them are not all butterflies and happy when you give them a PBA card.”
For all the buddy-buddy connotations PBA cards seem to carry, encounters like these underscore the fact that PBA cards aren’t about cops showing respect to civilians; they’re about cops respecting each other. Exhibiting restraint, even when they’d rather crack down, is easiest for officers when there's an implied social or professional cost—in accepting a PBA card, they're ultimately protecting themselves.
Police unions tend to be tight-lipped when it comes to discussing PBA cards. The phenomenon is mentioned in the media as early as 1936, in a profile of a former police commissioner in the New Yorker, and references to PBA cards continued to crop up in New York–area newspapers throughout the 20th century, generally in connection with forgery and extortion. One motorcycle patrolman died by suicide after he was found guilty of distributing fraudulent courtesy cards. But for the most part, you’d be hard pressed to get a cop (or even a PBA cardholder) to discuss the custom in detail.
Because of this silence, it's tough to get a read on how many PBA cards there are in circulation, and who exactly is holding them. The NYC PBA caps the number of cards it gives each of its 24,000 active members at 20 as of 2019, down from 30 the year before. This was in response to the issue of people selling the cards on eBay as long ago as 2006 (they are still available there as “collectibles,” as of this writing). That means there may be up to 480,000 PBA cards issued in 2020 currently in circulation from a single union, in a single city—a number that does not include cards issued to retired officers.
In a 2018 interview with VICE News Tonight, a retired NYPD officer told a reporter, “I can tell you now from inside experience: They don’t have a clue how many cards are printed because they’re not serialized. They don’t inventory the cards. They just give them out.”
“If there's a million of those cards out there, think of the police officer!” Driscoll said. There is some interest in limiting the number of available cards so that they maintain their significance. “It gets to the point where it's, I have to issue summonses, I don't give a damn if you have a card or not.”
According to Driscoll, PBA cards are just par for the course when it comes to uneven policing based on an individual officer's judgement—he stressed that cops exercise discretion and let people off with warnings all the time, PBA card or not. “People can read into it what they want, that it's nefarious… it's not that big of a deal,” he said.
To Wall, though, courtesy cards are just the opposite: They’re “a window into the larger maze” of the foundational principles of policing, like discretion, that make the entire institution so unreformable. He believes they reflect the biases, prejudices, and institutionally supported pecking order of policing on the whole.
“Policing was never meant to be held accountable in the first place, not in a meaningful, substantial way,” Wall said. He cautioned against focusing too much on the injustice of PBA cards. “Be careful that the outrage [doesn't] become directed in too narrow a way. The real outrage should be directed at the nature of policing itself.”
Correction: This story originally stated that David Correia is an associate professor at the University of Mexico. He is actually an associate professor at the University of New Mexico. We regret the error.
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